Eun had called it; Blake and his guys used the same moves and said the same stuff. Peter and his friends, however, were constantly refining, constantly growing. Soon, they were able to act as a single, unified consciousness—defeating Blake became a matter of routine.
Four weeks in, the attacks stopped. Peter and Kora were initially puzzled, but Eun (of course) saw the reason for it.
“Dee’s evolving,” she explained as Kora rummaged through her locker. “And it’s not by choice. She yearns for stasis, but existence won’t allow it. Now that we can beat her goons, she’s decided to bench them and save them for later. She’s trying to strategize.”
Kora grunted, shoving some books into the upper cabinet of her locker. “It won’t accelerate her demonic ascendance. From an arcane perspective, she’s already injected a fixed amount of energy into her minions. There’s a kind of…” she struggled to find the words. “There’s a kind of pact you commit to when you use that style of magic.”
“Like a 401k,” Peter said. “Early withdrawal comes with a penalty. Gotta let your money sit and grow.”
“Yep.” Kora nodded. “Exactly.”
“Can we shift focus?” Peter asked. “Blake’s backing off, so we can ease up on the go-team-go stuff, right?”
“Sure.” Eun shrugged.
“Yes!” He pumped his fist. “I was getting tired of all those post-battle debriefs.”
“I kinda liked ’em.” Kora sighed wistfully.
“Two months ’til senior prom.” Peter chewed his bottom lip. “What do we do to fill the time?”
“Back to the basics,” Eun said. “Prep our stuff, generalized training, keep an eye out…that sort of thing.”
“Great,” He smacked his fist into an open palm. “I’ve got a big-ass list I need to tend to.”
Kora raised a cautionary finger. “I’ve been through a lot of these—you know: gear up, make plans, game face…and everyone neglects the same thing. It’s super important.” She gave her friends a weighted look.
“What?” Peter prompted.
“Try and have fun.”
“Destination, not the journey, right?”
This, of course, came from Eun.
While the three teen-heroes had fought with Blake, Holly had spent an entire decade in a monotone wasteland.
Ten years ago, she’d found a way to kill the spider-beasts. It took six months to hone her magic to where she could do it reliably. During that time, she’d taken shelter within her cliffside cave, eating the insects that roamed its depths. Once she’d improved her offensive magic, she’d struck out across the Territories, not just killing the spider-beasts, but fashioning armor from their gleaming carapaces. She now wore a patchwork of chitinous shell.
Ten years of roaming the Territories. Ten years of dreary combat.
Somehow, her desire to live drove her magic to new heights. She wasn’t sure how, but it was undeniable. When she’d trained with Estilian, she’d experienced long days of teeth-grinding frustration, but when he’d threatened her life, she’d risen to the occasion. And later, when hungry spider-beasts had driven her to the cave, the prospect of death had made her even better. She could now wield something akin to a laser whip; it cut through forelegs and thoraxes with consummate ease. She’d also learned telekinesis—she could grapple with assailants using mind alone, lining them up for devastating combos.
But she was far from safe; the Territories’ magic was warping her mind. (Or it was warping reality itself.)
Her journey should have taken half a year, nine months tops. But she’d been stuck in the wasteland for over a decade. She knew where to go; she’d followed the Raging Centaur (a constellation whose bottom-most star pointed south) with unwavering diligence. So she wasn’t drifting or straying off course.
That wasn’t all. Last year, the spider-beasts began wearing her face.
Now, their thoraxes were topped by her blonde-haired head. She’d murder scores of them, littering the desert with leaking body parts, but she couldn’t bring herself to attack their heads. Back when they’d just been giant insects, she’d gone for the skull every time—damaging their brains was a guaranteed kill. But after they’d stolen her cheer-queen appearance (hence her new name for them: face-stealers) she couldn’t destroy their Holly-faced noggins.
So she marked her passage with a trail of heads, dotting the ground with her decapitated visage. Some looked angry, some sad, but most just stared blankly ahead. When she harvested meat from their chitinous bodies, she’d concentrate on her hands and their shells, staunchly ignoring her macabre reflection.
Holly was plagued by relics of herself, yet she couldn’t acknowledge them.
Her muscles grew gnarled and ropy. Her hair—now a gray-white veil—cast a constant shadow across her features. During her fifteenth year in brutal perdition, she began to wonder if she’d lost her mind.
Had she ever been a cheerleader, or was that just a dream? It seemed absurd that she existed at all.
Her reality narrowed even further, until all that remained was her endless trek and her relentless pursuers. Her world had been reduced to her meaningless quest, the unfeeling sun, and eternal combat.
Was this Hell? She wasn’t sure.
All she knew was she had to keep going. So she kept pushing through an alien nightmare, surrounded by the most familiar thing in all of existence:
Her own image.